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Seymour Stein, Record Company Man Who Signed the Ramones and Madonna

The music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talks about his faith in God, rockstar Kabbalah, and the soundtracks of life

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Seymour and Linda Stein with the Ramones and Iggy Pop at CBGB’s, 1976. (Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images)
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It may be hard to believe, but it’s been 30 years since Madonna released her debut self-titled album. The man responsible for signing the then-unknown twenty-something singer is chairman and co-founder of Sire Records, Seymour Stein. If you’re into popular music, odds are that you’ve heard of him. Even before Madonna, he was responsible for signing the kind of bands that changed people’s lives, like The Ramones, Talking Heads, and The Pretenders. He is popularly believed to have coined the term New Wave as a musical genre and is credited for breaking British bands such as Depeche Mode and The Smiths into the U.S. market. He is even responsible for bringing the original Fleetwood Mac to America in the 1970s, so no wonder he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Born Seymour Steinbigle in 1942, Stein shortened his name at the request of his mentor Syd Nathan, founder of King Records (“He said, it’s Stein or Bigle or back to NY!”), who whisked the young Brooklynite away to Cincinnati, Ohio, to indoctrinate him in the record business while still a teenager, albeit one with some experience working in the chart department of Billboard magazine. In 1966 Stein founded his own label, Sire, together with Richard Gottehrer—a songwriter and producer who by that time had already co-written and co-produced unforgettable ’60s pop-hits like My Boyfriend’s Back and I Want Candy. From that moment on Stein was well on his way to becoming the record mogul that he is today.

Stein has known his share of tragedy in the past few years. In 2007 Linda Stein, his ex-wife and the mother of his two daughters—known in the tabloids as “realtor to the stars”—was murdered by her personal assistant, and last February their elder daughter, Samantha Jacobs, died of brain cancer at the age of 40.

With a 55-year career behind him, and a walking cane in one hand, Stein looked tired, but he’s not one to rest. I recently met him for coffee in the lobby of a Tel Aviv beach-front hotel, where he was attending a Warner Music international conference, held for the very first time in Israel, after flying from Glastonbury. Although he’s not so young anymore, and music has clearly changed, Stein is still interested and listening. As the chairman of Sire Records and vice president of Warner Bros. Records, he was eager to hear the Russian representatives at the conference (he believes the Russian, Indian, and Chinese markets are the ones to look to nowadays in terms of music) and to get back to his hotel-room because he hadn’t answered any of his emails for two days. But first, he wanted to talk about his faith in God and his deep connection to Judaism.

I assume this isn’t your first time in Israel.

No, I’ve been here many times. The first time I was here was in 1967, two months before the war, I think it was. And I’ve been here many times since, probably six or seven times.

Business or pleasure?

Very little business, although I did record Ofra Haza. I put out two singles by her and an album, and both of the singles went to No. 1 on the Dance charts. I love Israel. I’m very Jewish, I’m very proud of it. I wear it like a badge. I’m not really Orthodox but I’m a very strong believer in Judaism and Jewish tradition. It’s deep, deep in my heart. I believe very strongly in God.

How does this go with the rock business?

I think it goes perfect. But you know, I don’t look for approval and I don’t look for disapproval. I do what I do.

It’s been 30 years since Madonna’s first album, which of course you were responsible for. How did that happen?

This wasn’t at the beginning of my career. I already had Sire Records, which was moderately successful. I already had some very important bands before I signed her—The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders. I had another company that had all the original Fleetwood Mac recordings, so Madonna wasn’t my first big artist. I got involved with her through a club DJ named Mark Kamins, who I liked and I thought had a lot of talent. I gave him some work remixing records. He wanted to be a producer and he wanted me to give him one of my artists to produce. I told him, “I don’t give my artists to anybody. Usually they pick the producer. I try to give my artists as much artistic freedom as possible, within reason. I couldn’t recommend you because you have no track record. If you want to be a producer you have to find an artist and bring him or her or it—if it’s a band—to me. Then if I like the artist you can produce them.” He brought me a couple of things that were very good but not good enough to sign. The third artist he brought me was Madonna. I was in the hospital at the time. I had to be there for a month, I had an infection. The Walkman had just recently come out, so I had the demo sent right over to me. I loved it and being a little naturally paranoid, in a very Jewish way, I said, “I want to see her right away, I want to sign her.” So, she came to the hospital, we agreed to make a record together and the rest is history.

Did you ever think she’d be calling herself Esther one day?

Esther meine schwester? Ahh … no. I believed she would be a star. People ask me, “Did you know then, in the hospital, that she would be one of the biggest female singers of the 20th century?” I would love to be able to say, “Of course I did!” But that’s not true and I couldn’t say that. But I always believed in her, because not only did she have talent, but she had a burning desire, drive, ambition, and a work ethic that is incredible. So, she had everything and I saw that in my hospital room.

Are you still in touch with her today?

Yes. I was at one of her gigs of the last tour. Warner Bros. bought my company and if it were up to me she’d still be where she was. But she couldn’t make a new deal with Warner on the terms that she wanted and she left. It had nothing to do with me. I don’t see her that much but I’m in close contact with her manager, Guy Oseary, who is Israeli and living in L.A. and a very smart young man. Well, he’s not that young anymore. He’s certainly quite young, but when I met him he was just out of high school. He wasn’t managing her then, but he became involved with her record company and he did an excellent job. It’s been a very good working relationship between the two of them.

What do you think about Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism?

I think it’s tremendous. I learned a bit of Kabbalah when I was young, not very much, and I didn’t take to it that well. But Kabbalah is not just for Jews. I think Madonna has done a lot for Kabbalah because she’s a spokesperson for it and I find it wonderful.

You don’t find it a bit strange?

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Seymour Stein, Record Company Man Who Signed the Ramones and Madonna

The music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talks about his faith in God, rockstar Kabbalah, and the soundtracks of life